The Color Purple
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 28, 2005
The Color Purple, the exquisite new musical adapted from Alice Walker's novel and Steven Spielberg's film, is glorious. It's joyous and heartbreaking, funny and sad, exhilarating and serious, epic and scarringly intimate. It's a triumphant celebration of how one woman finds her voice by finding faith and power within herself. And it's a show that exults in letting its audience feel, be moved, and become part of its uplifting emotional spirit.
The story, which will be familiar to fans of the book and movie, concerns Celie, an African American woman living in Georgia during the first half of the last century. When we first meet her, Celie is 14, and she's just given birth to her second child—a little boy named Adam who, like his older sister Olivia, has been taken away by Celie's Pa so that Celie won't be distracted from her labors in the household and in the family's store. Within minutes, the awful conditions of this young woman's life are revealed to us: Olivia and Adam's father is Celie's Pa; Celie is told she is ugly and stupid; while her sister Nettie is allowed to go to school (she's studying to be a schoolteacher), Celie's only thought to be useful as a workhorse. When a rough-hewn neighbor known only as Mister comes by, asking Pa for Nettie's hand in marriage, Pa offers him Celie instead; reluctantly, Mister agrees to take her (as long as he also gets one of Pa's cows).
At Mister's house, life for Celie is even worse. Mister has four wild and spoiled children from a previous wife that she must care for, he's a tyrant to everyone who lives in his house or works in his fields, and he's also a mean-tempered drunk who beats Celie regularly and abuses her emotionally. When Nettie comes over one day, hoping to move in with Celie because life with Pa has become hard to bear, Mister tries to rape her. She gets away, but she disappears from Celie's life—completely, because Mister hides the letters she subsequently writes to her sister.
Just when it appears that there can be no hope for Celie, two remarkable women enter her life. The first is Sophia, a confident, brash, expansive woman who has fallen in love with Mister's eldest son Harpo and isn't afraid to tell him (or Mister, for that matter) what's what. The second is Shug Avery, a successful entertainer with notoriously loose morals who was once Mister's lover and is the daughter of the local preacher. Shug is immediately struck by Celie's open-hearted innocence and kindness, and becomes the first person (apart from the long-gone Nettie) to love her unconditionally and for herself. Celie reciprocates Shug's love, as feelings heretofore unknown—not just of romance, but also of self-awareness and self-actualization—crystallize within her.
Decades full of incident—much of it hard and sad, but a lot of it inspiring and joyful—follow until the story reaches its conclusion, some 40 years after its beginning. See the show and live it all: book writer Marsha Norman has found a near-miraculous way to narrate the epic tale with economy and intelligence, and the drama, guided by director Gary Griffin's sure and steady hand, passes speedily and compellingly. Propelling the story are the musical elements, both of which are exemplary and thrilling—Donald Byrd's choreography is dazzlingly raw and authentic and exciting; and the superb score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray alternately soothes and soars as it gives heart-rending voice to the myriad emotions experienced by the show's characters.
Two devices are particularly noteworthy. A trio of Church Ladies (played by Kimberly Ann Harris, Maia Nkenge Wilson, and Virginia Ann Woodruff—all three wonderfully individual and yet a superlative force as a team) offer narration and commentary throughout the piece, which proves both a deft way to deliver exposition and a brilliant means to convey one of the show's significant themes, the notion that no matter what happens to you or whatever anybody says about you, the capacity to grow and change lies only within yourself. A second convention observed by the show's creators is that, in general, only the men dance and only the women sing. (There are some exceptions, but that's the broad nature of the thing). This concept roots the show in its place and time. I love that The Color Purple, though about a singular heroine and the extraordinary women who help her realize her potential for love and accomplishment, is also about everybody and anybody. Celie's hardships aren't presented as unique because they weren't; Mister's awful temperament isn't attributed to evil so much as to rotten circumstance. Fact is, it was tough to be black in Georgia in 1909, and The Color Purple is entirely uncompromising on that point without making too much of it. The show's humanity—its recognition that human nature is both flawed and redeemable—is its most important asset. The sentiment of the title song—that God lives within all of us; so simple yet so profound—is one that we seldom hear sung on a Broadway stage. Maybe we need to hear it more; we certainly need it now.
The show is beautifully produced and designed, with particular kudos to Brian MacDevitt's warm and lovely lighting design and Paul Tazewell's smart, appropriate, and very pretty costumes. The music runs the gamut from gospel-infused spirituals (the opening number, "Mysterious Ways," is put over with soul-stirring power by Carol Dennis) to giddy jazz (Shug leads the company in a first-act show-stopper called "Push DaButton") to the timeless harmonies of swing ("Miss Celie's Pants," my favorite number, features virtuoso improvising by the three Church Ladies that I never wanted to end).
The performances are magnificent: this is as accomplished and committed an ensemble as has ever been assembled in a Broadway musical. Felicia P. Fields is perfect as the spitfire Sophia, while Elisabeth Withers-Mendes is tender and appealing and sexy as Shug. Kingsley Leggs gives a magisterial performance as Mister, capping his portrayal with a searing second-act number called "Mister's Song" in which he vows to change his ways. The supporting cast members, highlighted by Brandon Victor Dixon (Harpo) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (Nettie), are excellent.
Anchoring the show and turning in the bravura star turn I always knew she had in her is La Chanze, who is radiant as Celie. This woman only finds her voice late in her difficult life, but when she does she uses it to make—in the words of one of The Color Purple's recurring songs—a joyful noise.
Which is, in the final analysis, precisely what this show is all about. The Color Purple, effusive and sprawling and full-hearted, is a welcome addition to Broadway. I hope it will stay there for a long, long time.